- Early Modern Prose Fiction: The Cultural Politics of Reading
Naomi Conn Liebler's collection of essays on the study of early modern prose fiction in English is not quite as "new" as its editor suggests, yet the authors do provide some novel insights into rereading these important texts. The collection is uneven, though many of the essays offer solid scholarship, rhetorically engaging criticism, and revelations about previously overlooked texts. The list of contributors includes many of the usual suspects in the study of prose narrative of the period, which could provide a useful reader for advanced students.
Liebler opens the collection with a revolutionary take on the impact of prose fiction on the early modern English reading public. She points out that a new kind of reading public was emerging, one that read in private, that viewed literary objects as commodities (that could be purchased, borrowed, or traded), that saw the literary project more generally as nationalistic and encouraging. Reading, for this new audience, was a political act as well as a pleasurable one —a declaration of independence from the authorities who decried the lascivious and frivolous genre. Liebler has to work hard to find a way to make all of the essays in her collection work together, and she does a plausible job of it.
Perhaps the most impressive of the articles was Steve Mentz's "Day Labor: Thomas Nashe and the Practice of Prose in Early Modern England." Mentz can sometimes be self-referential in his scholarship, but this time it is to good effect. His argument about the bifurcation of the writing process for Elizabethan popular prose authors is well-crafted, well-delivered, and well-considered. He even provides theoretical backing for his claims about the extemporaneous aspects of composition versus the mechanical nature of printing. Using Derrida and Irigaray to distinguish between the more liquid-feminine nature of the creative process and the solid-male aspects of producing a physical printed text are clearly presented and then applied to Thomas Nashe's writing and products. Mentz looks particularly at Nashe's feud with Gabriel Harvey in a new way.
Constance Relihan also turns in a solid essay on the "Fishwives' Tales," a look [End Page 1401] at how female narrative voices can tell us about women's lives and their roles in the production of fiction. Of course, Relihan adds, such views are necessarily flawed because most of these female narrators have been created by male authors. In the end, as she describes the "floating utopia of fishwives" as they sail down the Thames, Relihan suggests that readers may enjoy the temporary nature of such a utopia and marvel at its particularly English nature.
Other highlights included Mary Ellen Lamb's essay on Barnabe Riche's collection and the ways he caricatures the female reader as frivolous and erotic (or erotically frivolous) in her desire to consume his fictions. Looking at some of the cultural and historical contexts of Riche's collection and Riche's own biography, Lamb successfully reveals the paradox of writing to attack frivolity while desiring to see it prosper —Riche saw Elizabethan England as suffering from its new love affair with luxuries and yet needed to keep his own audience buying. Liebler's "Bully St. George" is also worth the read as she offers Richard Johnson as the ostracized fiction writer —because we know little about his background or education, critics tend to dismiss him as a hack and are shy about attributing anything like an agenda to his work. Instead, his most famous work, the "Seven Champions of Christendom," is strangely dismissed. I say strangely since the book is so often mentioned in contemporary writing and so clearly aligns itself with an emerging English bourgeois identity. Liebler's comparison (more than once) of the text as the workingman's Faerie Queene is a bit less convincing, but she certainly gives the reader pause.
The other essays in the collection include two more on Nashe —Stephen Guy...